Last week, the Israeli Government celebrated the completion of a momentous operation to absorb some of the last remaining Jews of Ethiopia into Israel. On the very same day, it announced another historic campaign to rid the country of non-Jewish asylum seekers who fled atrocities in Sudan and Eritrea, allegedly bartering them to Uganda for arms and agricultural technology.
While Israel has been a country of refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, the government is turning its back on non- Jews seeking refuge from persecution.
Celebrating the triumphant accomplishment of the completion of the third and final government operations that airlifted a total of 30,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel over the past 30 years, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, “I am proud that as prime minister, beginning in my first term, I upheld the Zionist and Jewish imperative of bringing to Israel our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I see this as a moral obligation.”
But earlier in the day, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar struck a very different tone as he laid out the government’s plans to pressure tens of thousands of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea to voluntarily leave the country. He outlined how the government will continue to confine migrants in internment camps in the Negev desert and impose financial constraints on all Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to embitter their lives until they go.
“The government stopped the influx of the infiltrators who have been coming in droves to Israel, and now we must move forward with the deportation of these illegal infiltrators from the state of Israel – and we are doing so.”
There are approximately 55,000 African asylum seekers in Israel. Nearly all of them are from Sudan or Eritrea. Thousands of these individuals were kidnapped and held for ransom in the Sinai desert and subjected to torture and rape before they reached Israel. Since June 2012, all African asylum seekers that continued to trickle into Israel, including the trafficking, torture, and rape victims, have been automatically incarcerated for a minimum of three years without even a trial.
Jewish organizations and communities have been leaders in the effort to turn the world’s attention to the genocide, ethnic violence, civil war, and repressive government in Sudan. The oppressive regime in Eritrea may be less familiar to many people, but the plight of those seeking refuge in Israel are similarly dire. The US State Department describes the government of Eritrea as “a highly centralized, authoritarian regime.” It continues to allow “unlawful killings by security forces… torture, harsh prison conditions, and incommunicado detention, which sometimes resulted in death,” according to the State Department’s Human Rights Report.
While Netanyahu invokes Jewish moral imperative to resettle Ethiopian Jews, his government violates the Jewish commandment – repeated 36 times in Jewish scripture – to protect and care for the landless sojourners (in this case non-Jewish African asylum hopefuls) who seek refuge among the People of Israel.
Not only is there a Jewish obligation for Israel to protect and care for Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, but international law requires it. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Israel is forbidden to return refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated. Israel would be wise to heed the prophetic words of prayer offered by Rabbi Uri Miller at the historic March on Washington 50 years ago last month: “May we understand that when we deprive our fellow man of bread and dignity, we negate the tzelem elohim, the image of God in man... [W]hen any part of this society suffers, we all suffer.”
Israel must end its discrimination against non- Jewish asylum seekers, uphold its legal obligations, and stop returning refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated.
The author is the director of Israel programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights